College student and fashion entrepreneur Keletso Tlhapane of Mapetla Extension in Soweto is a regular in the mainly-Nigerian owned internet cafés of Braamfontein. There’s a reason he won’t use the rival services owned by locals.

“South Africans are not offering cheap and convenient internet services,” Tlhapane says, “The services they offer are often of poor quality, inconsistent and far too expensive for everyone to afford.”

His irritation towards local IT entrepreneurs are echoed by many young and skilled South Africans. Tlhapane is part of the generation that grew up on Facebook, Mxit and Google searches – and he is more than appreciative of all the possibilities provided by regular access to the online sphere.

As part of an unorthodox generation growing up in unconventional times, he is also of a generation that should be guided and nurtured to lead this young country into the future. The reality, however, is that most of his peers are still based in townships, inner cities and the rural areas of South Africa – all of which are hugely underserved by internet providers. According to stats gathered by international analysts at Ookla, South Africa has an average broadband download speed of 5.09Mbps, which ranks us at a paltry 128th in the world for speed. Only Pretoria, however, has average speeds higher than 10Mbps for ADSL, and outside of Gauteng Durban is the best provided city with a sluggish 3.63Mbps average speed.

The Gauteng City Region observatory put together this map of internet access in the area.
The Gauteng City Region observatory put together this map of internet access in the area.

And that’s the good areas. Diepsloot may technically have a 3G mast in the area, but odds of it working are generally stacked against you.

Even government now recognises that economic progress for low income areas can be boosted significantly by enabling access to high speed broadband, with a clear return on investment in GDP terms. The newly adopted National Broadband Policy recognises that: “In South Africa, the lack of always-on, high-speed and quality bandwidth required by public institutions, business and citizens has impacted negatively on the country’s development and global competitiveness. Significant growth in the ICT sector over the last decade has not been accompanied by the realisation of affordable access for all to the full range of communication services that characterises modern economies.”

The policy paper, known as South Africa Connect, reckons that an R65 billion investment in infrastructure would result in 400 000 jobs and R130 billion increase in GDP over 10 years.

No-one’s buying broadband

Yet South Africa remains one of only two countries in the world which sees high broadband adoption declining by 45% on a year-on-year basis. Sure, we have plenty of 3G and even 4G access, but data costs are too high to run a small business out of Soweto on that.

Those hit hardest appear to be the young entrepreneurs like Tlhapane or educated but unemployed South Africans from similar backgrounds. They have the skills and knowledge to accelerate socio-economic progress when provided with adequate connectivity, yet they live in a South Africa which appears to be at a high risk of getting left behind in the digital age.

According to the The National Integrated ICT Policy Green Paper reviewed earlier this year, South Africa has no official national e-strategy developed or approved by Cabinet for the Department of Communications. Granted, with ever-changing technological convergence occasionally making the ICT sector at times ungovernable, it is still disturbing to find that the country last saw its policies on e-Commerce and telecommunications reviewed over 15 years ago.

And it’s this crisis which has opened up a wide range of opportunities for IT entrepreneurs coming from other, often less-developed African countries who find they have a lot to offer in South Africa.

“No doubt South Africa is not a push aside with regards to infrastructural and technological standing in Africa, and as a result, internet access is far more convenient” says David Omotayo, an Infotech consultant who migrated to South Africa from Nigeria in search of better bandwidth. Highly accomplished and efficient with all matters related to running e-commerce systems and cybercafés, Omotayo and other foreign nationals are finding themselves somewhat unsung heroes in a country experiencing some of the worst economic inequality in the world. They often have day jobs with multinational software firms, and run the cafés in partnership with others of a similar background to keep costs down and the doors open for long hours.

And they really value a connection that lets them communicate with family back home.

Internet access at home from the Stats SA collation of 2011 census data.
Internet access at home from the Stats SA collation of 2011 census data.

Their low cost internet cafes can be found all over youth centric Braamfontein, Johannesburg CBD all the way down to the deeper rural areas of KwaNongoma in KwaZulu-Natal. A quick wander through the centre of Joburg reveals one Nigerian-owned café offering high speed broadband access at R10 for three hours: over the road, a South African shop offers just one hour for R24.

“What we see is a way we could make money, offer a service that is badly needed and thus make life much easier for everyone” said another foreign café owner who unsurprisingly wanted to remain anonymous.

It’s the unemployed graduates, the desperate job seekers and the budding generation of upstart entrepreneurs who value their presence the most. These are also citizens who will play a crucial part in defining the country’s tomorrow. In light of this clear demand – which can sustain cafés like Omotayo’s, why is it that township and rural IT entrepreneurs are struggling so much to compete and provide reliable internet services to their own people?

Township travails

Mzo Mpungwane is an active social reform businessman who tried to start a competent internet café in the Boksburg township of Dawn Park on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Dawn Park currently has one (South African-owned) cybercafé which offers access to the web at R10 per 15 minutes.

That access, by the way, is dial-up. Remember that?

Mpungwane saw an opportunity to offer fast broadband access and immediately faced more complications than he expected.

“I am staying in an area with no Telkom connectivity where we rely on wireless networks which are few and far between. They are a lot more expensive than Telkom,” he says. “To be honest with you, there are still many in the community who are frustrated with me. My rates were the same as Nigerian rates, but in terms of survival, I’m making competition with three grown-up men who all stay in the same flat whereas I stay in a bonded house. It’s hard to compete”.

Admitting also to the low volumes of individuals who did actually utilise his internet services when he offered them, Mzo somehow found himself at the heart of the education and infrastructure debate that the foreign nationals appear to be solving.

“There are far more pressing matters for the government to focus on than internet connectivity which was, at that time, costly and unreliable” says Nick Holmes, a facilitator at iSchool Africa – a government assisted organization whose primary focus is to provide rural and township schools with knowledge on the importance of IT systems, and computing devices. “We need to focus on drinking water, electricity, roads and irrigation for agriculture before we get to connectivity”.

With regards to the foreign-owned internet café’s that are dominating the country’s inner cities and rural areas, Nick remained positive.

“No-matter the agenda of those who bring connectivity, they cannot control the information and discourse we can achieve through this medium. We must accept all the support we get and not simply rely on our government”

Government, meanwhile, finally appears ready to combat the connectivity question. Connect South Africa makes bold promises for 100% connectivity, based around a sound plan to provide infrastructure to schools and hospitals first, which should then lay the foundations for the surrounding areas. While aspects of Connect are controversial – and delivery could be stagnated as a result – we are seeing investment in free WiFi initiatives like Project Isizwe, which is fantastic.

But we still struggled to get the Department of Communications to talk to us about the issue.

Ultimately, in building a way forward, one wonders whether it is possible for government to develop discourse with the foreign nationals who are at the forefront of resolving our immediate connectivity difficulties. Tlhapane concludes on the current state, “If we do not have internet access, our business will crumble and competitors will have an opportunity to meet the demand that our brand receives from the market”.

And if South Africans can’t or won’t provide it, someone else thankfully will.